According to a study published in Science Translational Medicine, the very treatments often used to treat chronic lower back pain may actually cause it to last longer. Persistent use of pain-relieving steroids and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, like ibuprofen, can turn a wrenched back into a chronic condition, the study found. But, how exactly can this happen? Surely, pain-relieving medications make a condition better, right?
To better understand the relationship between ibuprofen and chronic pain, let’s first take a look at what, exactly, ibuprofen and other pain-relieving medications are, and how they interact with your body.
What Is Ibuprofen?
Ibuprofen is a type of medicine classified as a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug or NSAID for short. These types of medications are commonly used to relieve pain from various conditions, such as headaches, dental pain, menstrual cramps, muscle aches, or arthritis to name a few. They can also be used to reduce fever and to relieve minor aches and pains due to the common cold or the flu.
Ibuprofen, and other NSAID medications, work by blocking your body’s production of certain natural substances that cause inflammation. The effect can help decrease swelling, pain, or fever. It is this process that researchers with McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, say can cause pain to become worse.
Normally, your body responds to a painful injury with inflammation, which is your body’s natural reaction to injuries and infections. Researchers believe that repeatedly blocking this inflammation with drugs like ibuprofen could lead to pain that is harder to treat.
Let’s next take a look at exactly what this new study found, and better understand the link between ibuprofen and chronic pain.
How Can Ibuprofen Lead to Chronic Pain?
The study, led by Jeffrey Mogil, a professor of pain studies at McGill University, analyzed data from over 500,000 people in the United Kingdom. Early findings from the study showed that individuals who took anti-inflammatory drugs to treat pain were more likely to have pain two to 10 years later but this effect was not seen in people taking paracetamol or antidepressants.
“For many decades it’s been the standard medical practice to treat pain with anti-inflammatory drugs. But we found that this short-term fix could lead to longer-term problems,” said Mogil.
The research specifically focused on lower back pain, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is one of the most common types of chronic pain in the world.
To better understand how drugs like ibuprofen can cause acute pain to become chronic, Mogil and his team followed 98 patients with acute low back pain for three months. They also examined the mechanism of pain in both mice and humans.
They found that a white blood cell known as neutrophils, which is responsible for helping the body fight infections, played a “key role in resolving pain.” When Mogil and his team blocked these cells in mice, they found that it prolonged the pain up to 10 times longer than the normal duration.
When researchers treated the pain with anti-inflammatory drugs and steroids, they found that it produced a similar result, although they were effective against pain in the short term.
Luda Diatchenko, a professor in the faculty of medicine, faculty of dentistry, and Canada Excellence Research chairwoman in human pain genetics, said: “Our data suggest that using drugs like ibuprofen and steroids to relieve pain could increase the chances of developing chronic pain, but proper clinical trials should be done to firmly conclude this.”
The study could have implications for how doctors treat pain in the future. But, should you stop taking ibuprofen altogether? Let’s talk about that next.
Should You Stop Taking Ibuprofen?
One very important thing to note about this study is that it has not yet been conducted in what would be considered “proper” clinical trials.
Some medical experts, like Dr. Diatchenko, urged caution when interpreting the study’s results too broadly. One major drawback is that the study did not use the “gold standard” for medical research, which would be a clinical trial.
Such a trial would consist of people with back pain who would be randomly assigned to take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug or a placebo and who were then subsequently followed to see who developed chronic pain. Instead, the study involved observations of patients, an animal study, and an analysis of patients in a large database.
“It’s intriguing but requires further study,” said Dr. Steven J. Atlas, director of primary care practice-based research and quality improvement at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Dr. Bruce M. Vrooman, a pain specialist at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire, agreed, but also called the study “impressive in its scope” and said that if the results hold up in a clinical trial, it could “force a reconsideration of how we treat acute pain.”
So, should you stop taking ibuprofen altogether? It is a known fact that regular use of ibuprofen can eventually lead to anemia due to bleeding in the stomach, impaired hearing, and kidney and liver damage. It is for these reasons alone that most doctors recommend that you do not take drugs like ibuprofen daily.
If you take ibuprofen regularly for pain, you may want to talk with your doctor about alternative treatments or medications that may be safer for your body. Your doctor can also help you understand the cause of your pain, which may help you better understand how to prevent or limit situations that cause your pain to flare up.
As always, before making any major changes to your lifestyle, especially when it comes to your medications, it’s always important to have a proper conversation with your doctor or healthcare provider.
Were You Aware That Taking Ibuprofen Regularly Can Lead to Chronic Pain?
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